Temperatures are going down now. Leaves have left their branches and birds, after their usual spectacular dances over our heads, have taken off towards warmer shelters.
Nonetheless, each season has its unique offerings and rhythms.
Walking in Nature, connecting to it, is a holistic experience that I have started to savour quite late in life. It is a pity but still better late than never.
There are many studies demonstrating that being out in the elements causes us to be more alert, relaxed and engaged.
Being in Nature has a profound impact on our brain and behaviour.
It helps us reduce stress and anxiety. It and increase our creativity, our ability to connect to other people and to be present.
For children, the effects are the same and because kids are probably even better than grown-ups when it comes to sucking out all the marrow of life, we should encourage more the interaction between Nature and our little ones.
When we moved to Zürich, we weren’t even aware of such things but we were lucky to have found schools that support a healthy connection with the beautiful nature scenes around us.
I decided to interview Jane, the forest teacher at the daycare school that B attends (P did too). I hope this will give you a glimpse of some impacts that Nature can have on our children’s behaviour, from social skills to positive emotions and active learning.
INTERVIEW WITH JANE GREIS
Jane, first of all, thank you for doing this.
Q: What can you tell us about being a Forest Leader for young children?
A: I consider myself very lucky to live here in Switzerland. Here we have easy access to the forest and there exists an established practice of learning in nature. I enrolled my own kids up in the local forest playgroup as soon as they were old enough, I often accompanied the group and grew to love it even more than the children did.
I trained as a forest playgroup leader and established my own project called NaturePlay in Oetwil am See (Canton of Zürich).
After coming to the daycare I work for, I had the opportunity to train as a Feuervogel nature pedagogue and deepen my experience and skills. I work with preschool children as well as the school-age children who come to me for English language afterschool programs in the forest.
Children belong, outside in nature, moving their bodies, experiencing and encountering the world up close and first hand.
There are plenty of studies demonstrating that out in the elements we are more relaxed, alert and engaged than in the classroom, and this very much supports my experience over the years. Real kids having real experiences with real life, that is the best kind of learning.
Q: HOW IS A TYPICAL DAY IN THE FOREST?
A: We follow the seasons and the weather so every day in the forest is different. I like to say that Mother Nature is the teacher and I am simply the guide. Each season has its unique offerings and rhythms. For instance, in the spring we seek out signs of new life with all of our senses.
We discover the first snowdrops popping up through the cold wet snow. The children hear the songs of the first birds returning after winter. We smell, taste and tell stories about the wild garlic, or Bärlauch, as it is called here.
There is a loose structure to our days that provide a scaffolding for the children’s learning. Each morning we begin at the entrance to the woods where we greet the forest and its inhabitants through song. Next, we open the imaginary door to the forest with the magic key, don our “deer ears”, and “owl eyes” and make our way down the path to see what we might discover. Our destination is a special area where we have our fire pit and seating area.
Here we will have our snack, play and explore freely. We build a fire so to cook our lunch together.
On the way to our forest place, we might visit the brook where we play in the water or build a bridge. Perhaps we’ll stop at the crossroads and check in on the magnificent anthill. The possibilities are endless. After lunch, we clean up, bid the forest adieu and return to school where our moms and dads are eagerly awaiting tales of the days’ adventures.
Q: WHICH IS THE GENERAL AIM OF A SCHOOL FOREST?
A: Forest school is wonderfully holistic. A day in the forest is all about learning experientially with all our senses. Time in nature challenges and supports the whole child. There is scope for every child and every learning style. Because, whatever we can achieve in the classroom, can be achieved equally well in the great outdoors.
We learn our numbers by counting the acorns we’ve gathered in our basket. The math lesson continues as we compare the size and shape of the various leaves we’ve found on the forest floor.
A child is practising his language skills as he breathlessly tells the exciting story of having discovered a set of animal footprints in the snow or a small animal skull in the underbrush.
Suddenly we are knee deep in a science lesson as we try to figure out who the footprints or skull belong to.
Children who are kinesthetic learners are at a great disadvantage in a typical classroom. They struggle to sit still and focus. In the forest, children have the freedom to move their bodies fully and naturally, which is necessary for them to focus and process what they are learning.
We must have a few rules in terms of fire safety and where we are allowed to go, for instance. For other issues, I prefer to talk about agreements. Because we are part of the ecology of the forest, we make agreements as to how to behave respectfully in the interest of the greater good. Good manners and kindness apply, so not just in the way we treat our fellow humans but the land and its inhabitants as well. “Please, may I have a leaf for my crown, dear Oak Tree. Thank you for your warmth, Lovely Fire. I am sorry I stepped on you, Little Snail.”
Most importantly, we learn about the fabric of life and that we are part of it as well. We are not separate from it. With time, the children become intimate with the landscape and develop a deep love for the planet.
I am a big fan of the American nature connection educator, Jon Young, who after many years of anthropological research and working with children outdoors, describes what he calls the eight attributes of connection.
1. Quiet Mind, Presence, and Creativity
2. Inner Happiness and Joy
4. A Commitment to Mentoring
5. Empathy and Respect for Nature
6. Being Truly Helpful
7. Being Fully Alive
8. Love and Forgiveness
Q: WHAT IS THE BEST THING ABOUT BEING A FOREST LEADER?
A: I consider myself a life-long learner. Being a forest leader is a great way for me to continue to learn about life from the best mentors: children and mother nature herself.
Thank you for reading, I hope you had some useful insight into the wonderful experience of the forest class.
I would love to hear about your story. I am sure many other countries are paying attention to the importance of connecting kids to Nature.
Let me know your experience too!
If you live in Zürich, or would simply like to connect with Jane to know more about the topic, please find here her details: